It was the day of the Academy graduation. Itachi stood among the crowd of spectators as the students were called up one at a time by their instructors. Itachi's parents were also somewhere in the crowd, but he had been doing his best to avoid them lately. His mother had brought up his impending engagement to Mariko the very first time they visited him in the hospital, and his father had all but interrogated him about the classified details of the mission.
Sasuke's name was called. The boy stood up and walked forward calmly. He accepted his headband and bowed respectfully to Iruka. When he turned around to return to his seat, his expression was serious, but Itachi could tell he was struggling to keep it that way.
The next name called was Naruto's. Predictably, the blond did not even bother trying to feign stoicism. He let out a whoop, sprinted forward, and hugged Iruka after receiving his headband, grinning from ear to ear the entire time. Itachi shook his head and chucked. The Jonin who received Naruto was in for a challenge. Itachi was a bit surprised by the pang of sadness that came with knowing that, after over five years, his mission was now complete. Naruto was now officially a ninja, and he was on his own. Itachi was no longer his protector.
Itachi heard someone approaching through the crowd. He glanced over and saw Kakashi, his hands stuffed in his pockets, looking characteristically bored.
"Thought you might want to know; they've both been assigned to me." he said.
Itachi looked at him, "Do you plan on actually keeping this team?"
Kakashi shrugged, his visible eye squinting in an unseen smile, "That depends on them, the girl too; but I've got a good feeling about this one."
"You'll take care of them, right?"
"You have to ask?"
After the graduation, Itachi waited outside for the boys to be officially released and finish talking with their classmates. He did not have to wait long.
"Itachi-niisan! Did you see?!" Naruto asked excitedly as he burst through the Academy doors.
"Yes, I saw. It would have been difficult to not to." Itachi replied with a smirk.
Naruto adjusted his new headband, still grinning.
"I'm glad you could be here, Aniki." Sasuke said.
"So am I… There's something I need to talk to you both about."
Naruto apparently heard the seriousness in Itachi's voice and stopped smiling, "What's wrong?"
"I didn't want to tell you this until after you graduated. I didn't want to distract you."
"We graduated. Just tell us." Sasuke said apprehensively.
"…I'm very sick. I have been for a while. I won't be around for much longer, maybe a few more years."
Sasuke looked as if he was going to puke, "You're… You're going to die?"
"No way!" Naruto shouted, "Me and Sasuke won't let that happen!"
Itachi smiled sadly, "There's nothing either of you can do. There's no cure."
"Then we'll find one!"
Sasuke seemed to have collected himself, "Yeah. We'll find a cure. We'll find something."
"I don't want you to worry about me. You're both Genin now. You have your own responsibilities and your own missions to think about."
Naruto shook his head emphatically, "I don't care! We're not going to let you die!"
It took a while, but Itachi eventually managed to calm down Sasuke and Naruto enough to send them home. He wandered the streets for a bit, trying to collect his thoughts, but the excitement in the village following the graduation made it difficult. He set out to find somewhere quiet.
Itachi set his crutches aside and carefully sat down against the far southern wall, not far from the river. He winced as it strained his back. His spine had been repaired with medical ninjutsu, but it was still very painful. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He had intended to meditate, but instead found himself reflecting on the last several years and the complications they had brought to his life. He sometimes wondered what life would have been like if he had not been born an Uchiha, or had not chosen to follow the shinobi path. He wondered if he would be happier now.
"For a cripple, you are a hard man to track down." said a familiar voice.
Itachi opened his eyes just as Hana sat down beside him. He had come here to be alone, but now that she was here, he found that he did not mind the company.
"The Brothers aren't with you?" he asked.
Hana shook her head, "I just came from the graduation. Besides, they're still exhausted. They could use the break."
"What about you? How are you doing?"
"I'm fine. I wasn't the one with a stab wound, a concussion, second degree burns, a broken hand, broken ribs, a cracked femur, and—oh yeah—a fractured spine."
"Thanks for the list. I'd almost forgotten." Itachi said sarcastically.
"You really had us worried, you know."
"We… We haven't really had the chance to talk about what happened on the mission. I mean, about you being sick, and… the other stuff."
"Are you still angry at me for not telling you sooner?"
"A little, yeah." Hana admitted, "But that's not really the point. I just… I don't want to lose my best friend."
"I don't think either of us have a say in it. Sasuke and Naruto seem convinced they can find a cure though." Itachi replied with a rueful smile.
"Well, then there's nothing to worry about." Hana said, forcing a light tone, "I doubt there's anything those two can't do once they've made up their minds. And I hope you don't think I'm just going to give up on you either."
"Hana Inuzuka giving up… That would be unprecedented."
Itachi sighed and leaned his head against the wall, "I wish everything could just be simple for once. The Akatsuki are still out there, Danzo has been lurking around, Shisui still isn't himself, my father doesn't seem to understand what 'classified' means, and to top things off, my mother wants to discuss wedding plans."
Hana grimaced, "Yeah… It seems like you keep drawing the short straw. But maybe it's because you can handle it."
"You know I'll always be here for you, right? Shisui's going through a lot right now, but when it comes down to it, so will he."
Itachi smiled, a real smile this time, "I know. Thank you."
"There was… also that other thing that happened down there. I guess I should probably apologize for that. I… wasn't really thinking." Hana said, her ears burning bright red.
"In that case, I think I'd like to stop thinking for a while too."
Hana looked over at him, confused. Itachi took the opportunity to lift a hand to touch her cheek, tracing her red clan markings with his thumb. He leaned in slowly, gently brushing his lips across hers. Just for a moment, the looming dilemmas in his life were far away.
It occurred to Itachi that maybe none of those things mattered anyway. Even if he were to die tomorrow, he was satisfied with how he had lived his life and the people who had been a part of it. He had been the best big brother he could to Sasuke. He had made a real difference in Naruto's life. He had helped keep the village safe for another day. He had done something with his life, small though it might have been in the grand scheme of things, and he could be happy with that.